Twelve-year-old Dara, her older brother, and their mother are the only ones left of their once-large family. Although the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, neighboring Cambodia – decimated by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime – is still plagued with uncontrolled violence. Dara’s diminished family flees their village to a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where they find a near-instant connection with another splintered family.
Dara is especially drawn to Jantu, one year older, whose remarkable talent for creating dolls, toys, whole imaginative worlds out of almost nothing – even muddy clay! – binds the two girls tightly together. When both families are forced to flee yet again, Dara, Jantu, and her injured little brother become separated in the chaos. Fueled by the magic Dara believes Jantu has blown into a special clay marble, Dara tenaciously struggles to reunite both parts of her new family.
Minfong Ho‘s preface reveals her own personal journey guided by a magical clay marble, when she temporarily left college to volunteer with an international relief agency, setting up feeding programs for children in Thai-Cambodian border refugee camps. “I remember my first day at the Border,” she writes. “There are no words to describe the intensity of suffering I saw there. … I wanted to shut my eyes, turn around, and go back home.” But she didn’t.
What kept Ho from leaving was “a ragged little girl,” who offered her “a small round ball of mud” … complete with “a beautiful wide smile.” The laughter of the children that gathered around made Ho see that these refugees were “not the victims of war but its victors.” Although Ho doesn’t know what happened to the little girl – “life could not have been easy for her” – she can still “hope with all [her] heart that the little girl who gave [her] that first clay marble is safe and happy, home in Cambodia.”
Perhaps the spirit of that smiling little girl lives in on Dara’s story, a lingering magic that gives her the strength and determination to continue to survive … and decades later, to thrive.
Readers: Middle Grade